How to stop toddler tantrums

Screaming, crying, kicking, throwing things-we recognize a tantrum when we see one. But what causes tantrums, and what can we do about them?

Crying Toddler 

What is a temper tantrum?

A temper tantrum is a child’s normal response to a frustrating situation. It seems like your child throws a tantrum just to push your buttons; but in reality, temper tantrums are unintentional and unplanned. Children don’t throw fits to get your attention, they simply feel frustrated and out of control.

Who has temper tantrums?

Everyone has a tantrum once in awhile, but tantrums are most common in children between the ages of one and four years. According to WebMD, tantrums occur in about 80 percent of children in this age group.

Some children are more likely than others to have temper tantrums.

• Children who lack a routine may become easily upset because they’re hungry or overtired.
• Your child’s stage of development matters, too. Little ones who can understand what they’re told but are too young to verbalize a response may feel frustrated.
• Temperament matters. Perhaps your first child was easy going and never lost his temper while your second is prone to daily crying fits. Every child is unique—even those growing up in the same house with the same parents—and will react in his or her own way to a given situation.
• Children who live in stressful environments may feel out of control. Since children learn by watching their parents, it’s important to set a good example by handling your own frustrations appropriately.

What causes a tantrum?

Toddlers are busy learning new skills and asserting their independence. When something interferes with that, they don’t know how to respond. Maybe your child is trying to put on her own socks but they “don’t feel right.” Or you cut her toast into squares instead of triangles. The inability to complete these tasks is a real source of contention for a toddler.

Additionally, children need and thrive on limits; yet when parents set limits, the children tantrum in frustration. You won’t let your child hold a knife. You insist that he be strapped into his car seat. Limits can make your child feel completely out of control and trigger a total meltdown.
How should you handle a tantrum?

It is often thought that children throw tantrums to manipulate and control their parents. As a response, parents may feel compelled to take a firm stance against the displays and assert their own power. Contrarily, if you view a tantrum for what it really is — a child’s feeling of powerlessness and her attempt to find inner control—then you can position yourself to help rather than overpower your child.

Ignore the behavior. “Offer no reinforcement,” says Licensed Psychologist Jim Weiss, Ph.D. “Do not attempt to discuss or reason. Do not make eye contact. Do not show attention. Attention is reinforcing; even negative attention is attention.”
Remain calm. Your child is out of control and frightened and needs for you to be in control. Storming out of the room or trying to out-yell your child will only intensify the situation. Weiss advises parents to evaluate their own behavior in terms of expressing anger before judging their children because kids will often do what they see.”
Don’t punish the child. Spanking, scolding, or yelling may suppress the behavior in the short term, but the child learns nothing about learning more appropriate ways to deal with emotions.
Don’t reward the child. Trying to stop the tantrum by giving in to the demand may be tempting, but parents should stick with the limit that was set—no matter how intense the tantrum. Giving in to tantrums may teach children how to use tantrums for manipulation, causing the behavior to continue in the long term. Be firm and consistent.
Make it a team effort. “It’s important,” says Weiss, “that everyone in the household—parents, older siblings, relatives, and babysitters—be on the same page” with regards to handling tantrums. Consistency is the key.

What happens after the tantrum?

Once the storm has passed, reconnect with your child. Praise him for calming down. Hold him close and talk about what happened. Acknowledge his frustration and explain that it was the behavior—not him—that was “bad.” This will likely be a discussion that you have more than once. 

Most children grow out of the tantrum stage as they master new skills and become more independent, so hang in there.